Labour must resist those who say nationalism is the way to gain power

Daniel Trilling

Draping the party in patriotic clothing is no shortcut to working-class support. It’s been tried before and failed

‘If Labour were to make a nationalist turn now, it would risk finishing off the parts of its base it has so far retained.’ Photograph: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images

When a party fares as badly as Labour did this election, there are so many reasons for defeat that everyone can simply pick their favourite. Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit, an overstuffed manifesto, an inept campaign, hostile media, Conservative lies.

All of these and more are held up by competing factions. But perhaps the most influential account of Labour’s failure is the one coming from commentators who insist the result vindicates the argument they have been making for a decade: that the left has deserted its “traditional” working-class base by becoming too liberal. Labour was correct, holds this view, to move left on economics but it should seek to win back socially conservative voters by “moving right on culture” – or, to use the phrase of the economist Paul Collier, learn to “talk the language of belonging”.

This is not just an issue for the UK. In western Europe, the established social democratic parties have all seen a long-term decline in support among parts of their working-class base, linked to changes in capitalist production and the rise of political movements that focus on identity and values. The beneficiaries have often been rightwing populists, part of a global wave of movements whose solution to the turbulence of capitalism is a retrenchment of borders, be it physical or cultural.

These movements might differ in style and approach but they all propose to redefine their respective nations along narrower lines: against cosmopolitan elites, against religious, cultural or racial minorities, against outsiders. To regain lost ground, goes the argument, the left must make a fuller embrace of nationalism – something it has failed to do in the past because the intellectuals who shape party policy are squeamish about it.

What the ‘language of belonging’ almost always seems to boil down to is tougher immigration control

What the advocates of this position usually fail to mention is that centre-left parties have repeatedly done this – and fallen flat on their faces. The link between Labour and voters usually described as its “traditional” working-class base has been decaying since the early 2000s, and subsequent leaders have tried a variety of techniques to win them back. Under Tony Blair – a politician adept at using the language and symbols of the nation (his ascent to power in 1997 was accompanied by a photo of him posing on the white cliffs of Dover) – Labour tried to shore up its nationalist credentials with highly visible crackdowns on asylum seekers and “foreign criminals”, as the BNP began to appear in former industrial towns once dominated by the left.

As prime minister, Gordon Brown noisily promised “British jobs for British workers” in the wake of the financial crash but came across as insincere – a feeling crystallised by the moment he was caught on mic calling a member of the public bigoted.

His successor as Labour leader, Ed Miliband, made a more considered attempt to marry a slight shift to the left on economics with the conservative communitarian ideas of Blue Labour: the result was that he managed both to lose Labour’s strongholds in Scotland and be portrayed by the London media as un-English (in some quarters with a nasty dig at his Jewish refugee heritage).

There is nothing wrong with calls for the left to talk about belonging. What matters is how belonging is defined – and who gets to do the talking. All too often the assumption is that the left should drape itself in patriotic clothing as a shortcut to power. This ends up with the worst of both worlds: the politicians look insincere, and they reinforce the notion that belonging can only be articulated in exclusionary ways.

The conversations we need to have cannot be conducted via a media and political establishment that excludes much of the country it purports to speak for. Those who push for the left to become more nationalistic are overwhelmingly part of the liberal elite they criticise. They are Oxford economists, magazine editors, politics professors and professional thinktankers. What they propose is to add a dose of nationalism to a political system where power remains in the hands of small circles of technocrats. We will hear a lot of talk in the coming months about the need for Labour to listen to voters. Good. But what use is listening if you are then planning to offer yet more of the same? How about finding ways to help people speak – and take decisions – for themselves?

Furthermore, what “the language of belonging” almost always seems to boil down to is tougher immigration control. Yet it’s essential to remember that this is a policy, not a campaign slogan. As the hostile environment and the Windrush scandal show all too clearly, this isn’t just talk. Hardening immigration controls comes with a body count – whether or not the affected individuals are regarded as “belonging” to the nation.

Immigration control can also work to entrench division rather than make people feel more secure. Think of the UK’s asylum policy, a flashpoint for rightwing discontent for several decades. In response to a xenophobic moral panic fuelled by rightwing newspapers in the late 1990s, New Labour placed asylum seekers on a cashless vouchers system and forced them to live in “dispersed” accommodation around the UK, often in deprived areas. The Cameron government privatised asylum seekers’ housing in 2012, pushing people to smaller, more peripheral towns.

All this was done under the guise of making British citizens feel safer and more secure. In practice it treats refugees like unwanted guests and gives the impression to longstanding communities that they are having problems “dumped” on them. This is the kind of detail that the people pontificating about “belonging” rarely grapple with.

If Labour were to make a nationalist turn now, it would risk finishing off the parts of its base it has so far retained. Cas Mudde, a leading expert on the far right, argues that copying the right is a dead end and that while centre-left parties may be in trouble, the values that underpin them still have widespread support. But that doesn’t mean the left can’t talk about the nation: the different, contradictory things it means to people, what this says about our histories and where we would like to be in the future.

That won’t be comfortable. But talking about belonging – about solidarity, community, looking out for one another – is precisely where the left should be strongest. The question has to be how people divided by class, region, history, experience and outlook can build something better together – not which of those groups should be prized over the others, and treated as more authentic.

• Daniel Trilling is author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe

The Exit Poll, BBC Election Night and systemic media bias

Accusations of BBC media bias have flowed thick and fast from right and left, but the real scandal of the 2019 Election Night was that seats projections were announced at 10pm, while information on the parties’ national vote shares came along only seven hours later, when almost all viewers had gone to bed. Pippa Norris and Patrick Dunleavy argue that this extraordinary delay formed the centrepiece of a thoroughly over-legitimizing representation of the UK’s election process, exaggerating the Conservative and SNP victories, artificially demeaning Labour’s performance, and ignoring the injustices meted out to the Liberal Democrats, Greens and others. A simple re-framing could easily combat the BBC’s and other broadcasters’ now firmly enrooted ‘bias against understanding’, entailing something of a move back to older and more accurate election night formats.

The main lines of British political culture over the next four and a half years were constituted by the election of 12 December, and especially by how the broadcasters, especially the BBC, represented the results overnight. Election night coverage remains one of the few ‘water cooler’ events in public service television. BBC One’s election night program peaked at 6.1 million viewers as the results of the exit poll were announced at 10pm. It drew in around 4.36 million on average from 9:55pm to 2am, with many others watching online. Millions more people were tuned to ITV, Sky, and Chanel 4 news.

The centrepiece of election night programming across all broadcast channels was the single Exit Poll, conducted in 144 polling stations, with voters recasting their ballots anonymously for Ipsos MORI. From the change in votes since last time (at the self-same sites) an army of skilled analysts then dissects the new results to predict the overall seat outcomes for the BBC, ITV, and Sky. ‘The principal aim of the exit poll’, said John Curtice the BBC guru in overall charge, ‘is to help viewers and listeners to navigate the initial hours of election night as the first results come in. By comparing the actual results with the forecast of the exit poll, we will be able to point to the political direction in which Britain is now apparently headed’.

In the event, the 2019 poll correctly predicted 368 Tory MPs (actual number 365), 191 for Labour (actual 203), 55 for the SNP (in fact they only won 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats, a major gaff for the analysis here), and the Liberal Democrats 13 (actual 11). This precise prediction more or less eliminated all other perceptions, and incessantly dominated all further analysis and discussion for the first many hours of programming. A dominant narrative was established, with no counter-notes of any kind, proclaiming a Tory triumph, Labour wiped out in a historic defeat (widely represented as paralled only by Michael Foot in 1983), and an (as it turns out, overstated) SNP hegemony north of the border.

Only after 5am did the BBC’s Jeremy Vine at last announce an estimated three-party national vote share for Britain, to a residual audience of insomniacs and election geeks.

And what a different story this told. Despite the Brexit Party standing down in their favour, the Conservative vote share increased by just 1.2% on their 2017 performance. And Labour’s 32.1% share of the UK vote under Corbyn was not historically poor, exceeding as it did Ed Miliband’s in 2015 (30.4%); Gordon Brown’s performance in 2010 (29.0%), and Neil Kinnock’s vote share in 1987 (30.8%). Indeed, the 2019 Labour vote was just a couple of points behind their average performance since February 1974, when multiparty competition started to reduce the average two-party share of the vote. Labour’s vote share was down sharply on 2017 (-7.8%), driven by supply-side patterns of party competition which split the Remain camp. The Liberal Democrats under Jo Swinson had actually achieved a near 50% increase in their vote share, despite winning only two handfuls of seats. The divisions amongst the UK’s clear majority of the Remain voters were exacerbated by the UK’s electorally disproportional First-Past-the-Post system. It returned to its typical form in 2019, vesting Boris Johnson with 13% more seats than his national vote share, and awarding four fifths of the Scottish seats to the SNP for 45% of votes there. There was no vast blue tsunami in the grassroots British electorate. Different choices on the ballot simply altered party fortunes, which the electoral system then reshaped and exaggerated.

Why did the broadcasters vest all their national analysis in the Exit Poll, an exercise which since methods were changed in recent years has not been able to generate an accurate estimate of the national vote share? After all, there were plenty of reputable national polls conducted very close to the election day itself which gave a vote share that later turned out to be pretty much spot on, as Figure 1 shows. Any political scientist could have told the BBC that the median result here was highly likely to be accurate on national vote share. And while the BBC had a self-denying ordinance of not really covering polls during the campaign, that all ended at 10pm on election night.

So the vote share information was there to consider – it just could not be managed within the dominance of the Exit Poll ‘frame’, with its implied claim that only seats outcomes count, that only what determines the immediate contours of power in Westminster matters, and that the UK’s biased electoral system captures the ‘will of the people’.

For the BBC especially, the 2019 election night was a gross failure of the Reithian mission to educate and inform citizens at a critical juncture in political life in an open and multi-variant way. It ‘help[ed] viewers and listeners to navigate the initial hours of election night’ only in a one-sided, “only power matters” kind of way . Ironically, this was a complete denial of the BBC’s valuable Election Night heritage – for in the old days of David Butler and Robert McKenzie’s ‘swingometer’, changes in the national share of the votes provided a key focus of discussion and debate across the first hours of every election night. It filled the ‘empty hours’ while the seats results trickled in, and it accurately located watching viewers in an overall view votes and seats within the electoral process.

By 2019, all this was long gone. The fancy graphics were all about seats, seats, and nothing else. Constituency vote swings were occasionally highlighted, but without any background template and only then mainly in seats which experienced a particularly dramatic (and usually untypical) change. The narrative became a dramatic and exciting landslide of seats for Johnson – and the historic defeat of Labour MPs.

Journalistic framing conventions became embedded in the seats-only Exit Poll perspective of the BBC and other channels. It is perceptions like these that largely determine what is covered as newsworthy in public affairs. Frames reflect organized structural conventions in newsrooms, not individual choices or biases by reporters. Independent international media watchdogs have rated BBC news highly for their factual reporting, although perhaps slightly favouring the left in their news story selection. The Loughborough University content analysis of 2019 campaign news coverage found a rough parity in coverage of the two major parties, but around two-thirds of TV news focusing on the Conservative and Labour campaigns. Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats and SNP were given more attention on TV news than in the printed press – although that is hardly a level playing field comparison.

Appreciating framing bias

A different frame would have been possible if the interpretative frames used by broadcast journalists were only just a little bit more prepared to ‘speak truth to power’. Here is how national vote shares could have been introduced, from the outset of the Election Night broadcast, based on a better-rounded Exit Poll (taken together with well-conducted national opinion polls) – at the same time as the seats projections were announced:

The Conservatives came out top convincingly, gaining their largest parliamentary majority (87 seats) since 1987. Yet their share of all votes under Boris Johnson was 43.6%, up by one percentage point from two years ago under Theresa May.

Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s vote fell back from 40% in 2017 to 32%, a steep decline which saw the party’s MPs fall back towards 200. Yet its vote share was just 3 percentage points below the party’s average performance under successive leaders for the last half century. And Corbyn won a higher vote share than Gordon Brown in 2010, or Ed Miliband in 2015.

The biggest vote gain of the night went to Scottish National Party, up over 8 percentage points to 45% of all votes in Scotland. Against a fragmented opposition, the party gained 48 (80%) of the 59 seats in Scotland under the Westminster election system.

Elsewhere the Liberal Democrats also grew their support by 4 percentage points, reflecting a surge of support from their clear Remain stance. Under Jo Swinson the party achieved their best share of the vote since 2010, but won only 11 seats.

The two parties advocating a hard Leave position towards Brexit were marginalized. The Brexit Party under Farage gained 2% of the overall UK vote, and UKIP just 0.1% support – a dramatic fall since Farage scooped a quarter of the votes in the 2014 European elections, then gained 13% support in the 2015 general election, and since the Brexit Party won a 33% vote share in the May 2019 European elections.

Overall, reflecting the public’s position towards Brexit shown in recent opinion polls, the Leave parties won a combined share of the GB vote of 47%, compared with 53% for the Remain/2nd Referendum camp.

By contrast, here is the BBC’s actual final overall summary of the night’s outcome (focusing only on seats, and still ending with a salient exit poll mis-prediction):

Boris Johnson will return to Downing Street with a big majority after the Conservatives swept aside Labour in its traditional heartlands.

With just a handful of seats left to declare in the general election, the BBC forecasts a Tory majority of 78. The prime minister said it would give him a mandate to “get Brexit done” and take the UK out of the EU next month.

Jeremy Corbyn said Labour had a “very disappointing night” and he would not fight a future election.

The BBC forecast suggests the Tories will get 364 MPs, Labour 203, the SNP 48, the Lib Dems 12, Plaid Cymru four, the Greens one, and the Brexit Party none. That means the Conservatives will have their biggest majority at Westminster since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 election victory.

Labour, which has lost seats across the North, Midlands and Wales in places which backed Brexit in 2016, is facing its worst defeat since 1935.


About the Authors

Pippa Norris (@PippaN15) is the Maguire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University and the author of numerous books on British and comparative politics, media politics, and (with Ronald Inglehart), Cultural Backlash (Cambridge University Press 2019).



Patrick Dunleavy is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy in the Government Department at LSE, and Centenary Professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra. His most recent books are The UK’s Changing Democracy (LSE Press, 2018) [co-edited], which is free to download; The Impact of the Social Sciences (Sage, 2014) [co-authored]; and Growing the Productivity of Government Services (Elgar, 2013) [co-authored]. His Twitter account is @PJDunleavy.

There is a lot to criticise. But Corbyn and McDonnell have transformed Labour

Andrew Fisher

I saw firsthand how it became a mass membership party – and brought in thousands of bright and talented young people who will shape its future

• Andrew Fisher was the Labour party’s executive director of policy from 2016 to 2019

Tue 17 Dec 2019 14.57 GMT

‘It is vital to remember the inspirational role that Jeremy Corbyn (left) and John McDonnell played – not just at the top of the party, but before 2015.’ Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty

In the coming days and weeks, Labour and the left must reflect on why we lost; on our failures, the challenges that we must face to renew, and the opportunities that we must seize. Simplistic single reasons for the defeat are not credible – Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit, the media – and those peddling them already are interested only in political point-scoring, not rebuilding.

While it is only right that we now focus on the future and learn the right lessons from defeat, it is vital that we also remember the inspirational role that Corbyn and John McDonnell played – not just at the top of the party but before 2015. Like so many Labour activists, trade unionists and peace campaigners, I have long been inspired by Corbyn and McDonnell – by their bloody hard work and resilient political principles. For years, they were there: on picket lines, at protests and at political discussions – when the organised left was little more than a dozen people in a room above a pub.

In 2017, Labour won 40% of the popular vote, and its largest increase in vote share in postwar history

As backbenchers, they fought not for position within the party but for what they believed in – because they hated injustice and because they saw it as their responsibility as MPs to give a platform to those marginalised from power. They didn’t care if that meant they were blackballed by the party leadership or vilified by the press. They were there in solidarity, because that’s what their political principles demanded.

That’s why Corbyn won that transformative, historic leadership campaign in 2015. Because hundreds of thousands of party members respected his integrity, and all those trade unionists, peace campaigners and activists who had campaigned with him in the face of the powerful and been dismissed, were now inspired that one of their own could be Labour leader.

But without the apparatus to wield power in our hands, the Labour left was nowhere near ready for that – let alone to operate in an environment that was intensely hostile and actively trying to displace us. We didn’t have enough MPs we could rely on, or enough bureaucrats (I don’t mean the term pejoratively) capable of effectively running an organisation as large and complex as the Labour party – or even just the leader’s office.

Nonetheless, in the time since Corbyn won the Labour leadership and appointed McDonnell as shadow chancellor, they have changed Labour. It became a party comfortable with public ownership and redistributive taxation, and one that spoke confidently about ending austerity, tackling climate change, raising wages and living standards, and investing in public services. It stopped aping the divisive rhetoric of “skivers and strivers” and started talking about social security.

The party became a mass organisation – with membership trebled to over half a million. In 2017, Labour won 40% of the popular vote, and its largest increase in vote share in postwar history. The manifesto, For the Many Not the Few, which I had co-ordinated, managed to unify a Labour party that only a year earlier had been tearing itself apart in a divisive and unnecessary second leadership election.

I am so sorry we weren’t able to get into government. We came so close in 2017, and I really believed we could do it this time. We will all live with that sense of failure. I could hear it in the silence in the office at 10:01pm on Thursday, and I could hear it in the tone of McDonnell’s interview with Andrew Neil shortly after.

Although so many people feel despair, I am convinced that the future is brighter. I looked around me at Labour headquarters in the early hours of Friday morning, and again when I dragged myself back in on Friday afternoon after a quick nap. The people I put an arm around – some metaphorically, some because they were inconsolable – are all brilliant, talented young people, who are not just the future of our movement, but the talented present on which a revival will be based.

It’s worth thinking about what’s changed for the better since 2015. Before Jeremy became leader I would often be the youngest person at sparsely attended Labour meetings. As I turn 40, it’s reassuring that at the now considerably larger meetings, the median age is often below my own.

The left now has thousands of talented organisers, policy people, creatives and yes, bureaucrats who can run things. Jeremy and John made that happen.

There’s plenty of time to analyse the structural problems, the personal failures and, more positively, the road to recovery. My own pretty brutal criticisms, which I shared internally in September, were leaked to the Sunday Times. The fact that among a close group of comrades someone shared that memo with the Murdoch press tells its own story of dysfunction.

But for now, I just want to say thank you to two of the most principled people I know – Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. They have endured unprecedented attacks, but inspired so many.

• Andrew Fisher was the Labour party’s executive director of policy from 2016 to 2019

There is an antidote to demagoguery – it’s called political rewilding

George Monbiot

This form of radical trust devolves power away from top-down government, often with some very unexpected results

07:00 Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson during the Nato summit on 4 December, 2019. Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

You can blame Jeremy Corbyn for Boris Johnson, and Hillary Clinton for Donald Trump. You can blame the Indian challengers for Narendra Modi, the Brazilian opposition for Jair Bolsonaro, and left and centre parties in Australia, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland and Turkey for similar electoral disasters. Or you could recognise that what we are witnessing is a global phenomenon.

Yes, there were individual failings in all these cases, though the failings were very different: polar opposites in the cases of Corbyn and Clinton. But when the same thing happens in many nations, it’s time to recognise the pattern, and see that heaping blame on particular people and parties fixes nothing.

In these nations, people you wouldn’t trust to post a letter for you have been elected to the highest office. There, as widely predicted, they behave like a gang of vandals given the keys to an art gallery, “improving” the great works in their care with spray cans, box cutters and lump hammers. In the midst of global emergencies, they rip down environmental protections and climate agreements, and trash the regulations that constrain capital and defend the poor. They wage war on the institutions that are supposed to restrain their powers while, in some cases, committing extravagant and deliberate outrages against the rule of law. They use impunity as a political weapon, revelling in their ability to survive daily scandals, any one of which would destroy a normal politician.

In 2014, Finland started a programme to counter fake news. The result is that Finns have been ranked the people most resistant to post-truth

Something has changed: not just in the UK and the US, but in many parts of the world. A new politics, funded by oligarchs, built on sophisticated cheating and provocative lies, using dark ads and conspiracy theories on social media, has perfected the art of persuading the poor to vote for the interests of the very rich. We must understand what we are facing, and the new strategies required to resist it.

If there is a formula for the new demagoguery, there must also be a formula for confronting and overturning it. I don’t yet have a complete answer, but I believe there are some strands we can draw together.

In Finland, on the day of our general election, Boris Johnson’s antithesis became prime minister: the 34-year-old Sanna Marin, who is strong, humble and collaborative. Finland’s politics, emerging from its peculiar history, cannot be replicated here. But there is one crucial lesson. In 2014, the country started a programme to counter fake news, teaching people how to recognise and confront it. The result is that Finns have been ranked, in a recent study of 35 nations, the people most resistant to post-truth politics.

Don’t expect Johnson’s government, or Trump’s, to inoculate people against their own lies. But this need not be a government initiative. This week, the US Democrats published a guide to confronting online disinformation. They will seek to hold Google, Facebook and Twitter to account. I would like to see progressive parties everywhere form a global coalition promoting digital literacy, and pressuring social media platforms to stop promoting falsehoods.

But this is the less important task. The much bigger change is this: to stop seeking to control people from the centre. At the moment, the political model for almost all parties is to drive change from the top down. They write a manifesto, that they hope to turn into government policy, which may then be subject to a narrow and feeble consultation, which then leads to legislation, which then leads to change. I believe the best antidote to demagoguery is the opposite process: radical trust. To the greatest extent possible, parties and governments should trust communities to identify their own needs and make their own decisions.

The new Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, at the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels. Photograph: Thierry Roge/Belga via ZUMA Press/Rex

Over the past few years, our relationship with nature has begun to be transformed by a new approach: rewilding. Bizarre as this might sound, I believe this thinking could help inform a new model of politics. It is time for political rewilding.

When you try to control nature from the top down, you find yourself in a constant battle with it. Conservation groups in this country often seek to treat complex living systems as if they were simple ones. Through intensive management – cutting, grazing and burning – they strive to beat nature into submission until it meets their idea of how it should behave. But ecologies, like all complex systems, are highly dynamic and adaptive, evolving (when allowed) in emergent and unpredictable ways.

Eventually, and inevitably, these attempts at control fail. Nature reserves managed this way tend to lose abundance and diversity, and require ever more extreme intervention to meet the irrational demands of their stewards. They also become vulnerable. In all systems, complexity tends to be resilient, while simplicity tends to be fragile. Keeping nature in a state of arrested development in which most of its natural processes and its keystone species (the animals that drive these processes) are missing makes it highly susceptible to climate breakdown and invasive species. But rewilding – allowing dynamic, spontaneous organisation to reassert itself – can result in a sudden flourishing, often in completely unexpected ways, with a great improvement in resilience.

The same applies to politics. Mainstream politics, controlled by party machines, has sought to reduce the phenomenal complexity of human society into a simple, linear model that can be controlled from the centre. The political and economic systems it creates are simultaneously highly unstable and lacking in dynamism; susceptible to collapse, as many northern towns can testify, while unable to regenerate themselves. They become vulnerable to the toxic, invasive forces of ethno-nationalism and supremacism.

From the NHS to Brexit: what can we expect from Johnson’s government?

But in some parts of the world, towns and cities have begun to rewild politics. Councils have catalysed mass participation, then – to the greatest extent possible – stepped back and allowed it to evolve. Classic examples include participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil, the Decide Madrid system in Spain, and the Better Reykjavik programme in Iceland. Local people have reoccupied the political space that had been captured by party machines and top-down government. They have worked out together what their communities need and how to make it happen, refusing to let politicians frame the questions or determine the answers. The results have been extraordinary: a massive re-engagement in politics, particularly among marginalised groups, and dramatic improvements in local life. Participatory politics does not require the blessing of central government, just a confident and far-sighted local authority.

Is this a formula for a particular party to regain power? No. It’s much bigger than that. It’s a formula for taking back control, making our communities more resilient and the machinations of any government in Westminster less relevant. This radical devolution is the best defence against capture by any political force. Let’s change the nature of politics in this country. Let’s allow the fascinating, unpredictable dynamics of a functioning society to emerge. Let the wild rumpus begin.

• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist

There’s no getting away from the fact that last Thursday’s General Election was a disaster for the left in Britain.

British Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn in London, UK on 8 June 2017 [Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency]

Asa Winstanley


December 16, 2019 at 2:13 pm

There’s no getting away from the fact that last Thursday’s General Election was a disaster for the left in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party lost almost as many seats as it did in the calamitous 1983 election.

Labour’s leader at the time was Michael Foot, who, like Corbyn, was also smeared and demonised relentlessly by Britain’s woeful corporate media. In a similarly fateful poll, Labour lost 60 seats, while its vote share dropped to 28 per cent of the electorate.

With all the votes counted last week, Corbyn’s party had lost 59 seats, and its vote share had dropped to 32 per cent of the electorate, down almost 8 percentage points compared to the previous election in 2017. So many Labour MPs lost their seats in disenchanted northern post-industrial areas that even good socialists like Laura Pidcock and Dennis Skinner were turfed out by the blue wave of Tory voters.

Labour now has only 203 MPs at Westminster. One has to look back as far as 1935 to find a lower number of the party’s lawmakers in parliament, when Clement Atlee led Labour as it won just 154 seats in the House of Commons. Astonishingly, that was actually an increase of 102. Labour had been in a period of reconstruction after the betrayal of Ramsey McDonald in the great schism that resulted in “National Labour”.

In the early 1980s, Michael Foot also had to deal with being undermined by social-imperialist liberals. The short-lived Social Democratic Party ultimately failed in its project to establish a new force in British politics, but it did manage to hobble Labour’s chances before merging into the Liberals, resulting in the Liberal Democratic Party that we know today.

READ: UK’s chief rabbi urges voters not to back Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn

History repeated itself between 2015 and 2019, with right-wing Labour MPs implacably opposed to Corbyn from the start of his time as party leader. They sabotaged the party ruthlessly from within, fighting a rearguard action as they left. In February this year, that resulted in several of them starting a new party called the Independent Group. These disaffected right-wing MPs joined with several Tory MPs disenchanted with the ruling Conservative Party’s increasingly pro-Brexit direction.

One of the group’s financial backers was David Garrad, a high profile funder of the pro-Israel, anti-Palestine lobby, who was for years linked to Labour Friends of Israel. A majority of the Independent Group’s defecting MPs were official “Friends of Israel”.

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Jewish Voice for Labour supporters demonstrating against false claims of anti-Semitism, in London on 26 March 2018 [Twitter]

Nevertheless, this group failed even more miserably than the SDP did in the 1980s. Collapsing into bitter infighting, some of its members joined the Liberal Democrats, including Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger. One of the few silver linings of Thursday’s election was that every single one of these wreckers failed to get elected.

What a contrast, then, to 2017, when there was such hope for change. Although Corbyn did not win that election outright, the hung parliament was a stunning victory nonetheless. The 10 per cent increase in the vote share for his popular socialist policies defied all mainstream expectations. It was even a greater increase than that of the post-World War Two Labour government landslide of 1945.

READ: Corbyn’s positive display in leadership debate prompts desperate anti-Semitism claims

Why? Because Corbyn and the popular movement behind him broke decisively with the poisonous legacy of Tony Blair’s bogus “New Labour”, which was shorthand for back-door privatisation at home and wars of aggression and neo-colonialism abroad.

While the issue of Brexit was decisive in this election, another important factor was the successful campaign to smear and defame Corbyn as an anti-Semite. This campaign started in 2015, even before he was elected party leader by a massive majority of the Labour membership. From the 2017 General Election, though, the smear campaign was ramped up massively. It never relented, because his enemies were implacable and ruthless.

In this election, the smears broke through to the wider electorate for the first time. Some people were duped into believing that Corbyn was an anti-Jewish racist. Polling data and anecdotal evidence from Labour canvassers confirm this.

The “Corbyn is an anti-Semite” lie was believed because it fits into a wider dishonest narrative about the Labour leader being an extremist who hates Britain and the British way of life (whatever that nebulous phrase is supposed to mean). However, that wasn’t the whole picture.

A poll commissioned by the anti-Corbyn, anti-Palestinian publication the Jewish News revealed earlier this year that 52 per cent of Labour voters agreed with the statement that “Jeremy Corbyn is the target of a concerted smear campaign by his political opponents to try to discredit him over anti-Semitism.” This suggested that, even after four years of relentless defamation, millions of ordinary working class Labour voters were not fooled by the anti-Corbyn propaganda.

READ: Guardian columnist peddles fake news to accuse Corbyn of anti-Semitism

Instead of taking advantage of this window of opportunity, though, Corbyn folded under the pressure. Instead of fighting back strongly against the smears, he bowed to right-wing demands and started to claim that Labour, uniquely, has some sort of “problem” with anti-Semitism. Labour activists who called the smears what they were — vicious smears — were punished. Some were pushed out of the party, like Ken Livingstone and Chris Williamson.

In many ways, Corbyn was in an impossible position, but defeat was not inevitable. As such, the left in Britain must learn that you cannot compromise with such a smear campaign. It must be defeated by fighting it head on.

Corbyn’s defeat will not be enough for the right-wing and Labour’s own pro-Israel lobby. They will pile on the pressure to purge the party of anyone remotely sympathetic to the Palestinians, as demanded by the Jewish Labour Movement and Labour Friends of Israel. Neither group is entirely independent of Israel itself; a hostile foreign power appears, therefore, to be having a substantial influence on British politics. Anyone genuinely interested in preserving what little remains of Britain’s democratic integrity must surely be concerned about that.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

Labour’s Brexit stance left people hurt, abandoned and betrayed.

We have to rebuild a hope that things can change

IAN LAVERY says Labour needs more socialism, not more liberalism, if it is to win back the confidence of people outside Westminster

‘Too many of those in the political bubble rarely get out in London, let alone out of London’ – Ian Lavery

TWO weeks before polling day I went on a tour of seats across north and Midlands, from Middlesbrough to Carlisle via Blyth and finally down to Crewe and Cheshire.

They are all very different places, with different traditions, landscapes and political cultures. But they share an experience of having been abandoned by politics. Forty years after Margaret Thatcher went to war on British industry and made our economy dependent on the City of London, governments of both parties have done little about the rise of boarded-up shops, poverty wages and hopelessness. I am proud of my former mining town and I cannot imagine living anywhere else in the world – but there is a lot that needs improving.

This is why our anti-Brexit stance hit us so hard. When people who had been ignored made a political choice for change, many for the first time, they expected it to be honoured. Labour telling them that we had to re-run the referendum because they had got the wrong answer left people feeling hurt, angry and betrayed.

Brexit is not the only issue we need to look at when analysing what went wrong, but it is the single biggest reason we could not build on our huge advances in 2017. Of the 54 English seats we lost, 51 voted Leave – often in places that are Labour to the core and have been loyal to the party under leaders from Blair to Corbyn.

Our radical manifesto failed to get enough of a hearing because in many places we looked like the Establishment. It also made it difficult to expose how the Tories are using Brexit to put the NHS up for sale and attack workers’ rights, because we were not trusted to be serious about delivering a better Brexit.

Those who argued for Labour to take a second referendum or Remain position in defiance of the largest democratic exercise in modern British history must accept that they made a serious mistake, and must listen to voices outside Westminster.

I say Westminster specifically, because while working-class communities in London did largely vote Remain, the obsessive hard-Remain lobby are not representative of the working classes of either Hackney or Hartlepool. Too many of those in the political bubble rarely get out in London, let alone get out of London.

So Labour must ensure it values and encourages working-class leadership from across the length and breadth of this country. And we need to ensure that the North and Midlands are adequately represented in our leadership and in our party at large, rebuilding our relationships in the places we need to win.

This does not mean compromising on an agenda for radical change. Because only radical change – only the will to redistribute wealth and power on a significant scale – will be able to end the long term managed decline of Northern and Midlands towns and restore hope and pride.

We cannot allow the conversation about why we lost to degenerate into a culture war. We cannot be divided by region, by race, by the way we voted in the referendum, or in any of the other ways the Tories have tried to drive wedges into our movement.

The solution is not more conservatism or more liberalism; it is more socialism, a socialism that revives the spirit of solidarity and community in northern towns which gave birth to the Labour Party in the first place.

The Conservatives are looking to use their majority early on to attack working-class communities and finish the job they began in the 1980s. They are going after railway workers’ right to strike. They are going after our rights at work in their dodgy Brexit deal. They are making noises about investment while in reality keeping austerity for another five years. We should ensure the coming leadership election shows our party at its best not its worst, and puts the focus onto everything this rotten government is trying to get away with, having hijacked the votes of working-class people.

But above all, we need to organise in our workplaces and communities and bring people together around a vision of hope. We have lived in a bleak post-recession world of bad jobs and crumbling services for so long that too many people did not believe another future was possible.

Hope is the argument we have to win.

A Hidden Majority: UK General Election 2019

DECEMBER 16, 2019


Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The threat posed by Jeremy Corbyn to the powerful and privileged in Britain at the 2019 general election was far more severe than the one from Clement Attlee in 1945. While his Labour Party manifesto may have just laid out plans for a return to post-war norms of a “civilized” European social democratic state, Corbyn’s ambitions have long lain deep in English history, with movements like the Diggers in the 17th Century and the wider workers’ movements of the 1920s General Strike years.

Arguably, well known for decades in elite circles, Corbyn represented not just the fiery trade union base associated with Arthur Scargill during the 1980s Miners Strike – the closest Margaret Thatcher came to be overthrown – but also he represented the fight against neo-colonial power. He has always been on the right side of history, often evidenced by photographs and video, notably his arrest when protesting Thatcher-backed apartheid South Africa. Corbyn was never another Attlee. The 1945 Labour leader lauded for introducing “British socialism”, understood why rubber money from the genocide of communists in the Malaya Emergency could be used for the creation of the National Health Service. And Attlee understood the need for Britain to play its part in the slaughter of 20 percent of Northern Korea’s population. He knuckled down to Truman’s orders for the UK to host US nuclear weapons bases without telling parliament. No one could could see Jeremy Corbyn doing that. For him, humanity has always been equal, worldwide. And what’s even worse for the ruling classes – they knew Corbyn understood the centuries of pain.

The 2019 UK election results demonstrate that most people do not desire the atomized neoliberal model of society catalysed by Washington Consensus politicians James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher. There was still a majority of votes cast against Johnson. The concept of council, neighbourhood and street-level community still matters. It is why Boris Johnson’s Conservatives were forced into making pledges on the National Health Service – the crucial “cradle to grave” system signalling the UK together despite private contractor interference powered by Tony Blair’s Labour Party and successive governments. Extra funding of the National Health Service, though, is now inefficient funding because of the skimming off of profit by multinational firms. Extra taxpayer money for public services merely disappears into a rabbit-hole of corporate contractor profits and as services fail to improve then so do elites argue for yet more privatisation in a vicious cycle. Nevertheless,  Johnson was forced into making promises about centralized funding – he could not, as he has done before in parliament, actually argue for the virtual end of the NHS against Jeremy Corbyn. He would have lost the election. As for the lethal inequality destined to arise from NHS funds effectively disappearing into tax havens, Johnson has a plan : he pledges to recover police numbers slashed to bailout the City of London since the 2008 Western economic crisis. As mayor, Johnson infamously favoured the use of increasingly draconian equipment to punish protest in London and his prisoner rehabilitation program is to “lock ‘em up and throw away the key”.

Given Corbyn’s lifelong commitment to the Irish civil rights struggle, it is also notable that if he forced his opponents like Johnson into committing to extra NHS spending – he has also cornered the ruling classes into staring Irish unity in the face. Given rising neoliberal inequality in Eire, it is possible a Corbyn government could ironically have slowed down the unification of Ulster with the Republic. Why would those in Northern Ireland have wanted to unite with a South de facto controlled from Brussels which has busily been promoting globalized neoliberal policies and increasing inequality right across the EU? As Johnson’s so-called BREXIT deal stands, it effectively paves the way for Irish unity, something former Tory parliament partners the DUP Unionist party identified, catalyzing the general election in the first place.

On the EU itself, Corbyn has opposed it throughout his political career. However, the successful case for BREXIT made by Nigel Farage has never been as loud on the left of UK politics. The 2008 financial crash created a new cadre of young progressive supporters of Labour bound by shared understanding of the power of identity politics but not that BREXIT could mean something other than xenophobia and racism. With the LEXIT case not being made properly since the days of Corbyn’s mentor Tony Benn, no circle could be squared demographically for uniting the progressive young who believed BREXIT meant right wing and the BREXIT Labour heartlands whose livelihoods had been wiped out by globalization. Put simply, if Corbyn had supported Remain – he would have lost the working class. If he supported BREXIT – he would have lost the cosmopolitan young. The “lose-lose” dichotomy defined his “neutral” General Election stance.

But again, if Corbyn has forced Boris Johnson’s Tories into albeit inefficient funding of a privatized NHS let alone BREXIT policies that foster the cause of the IRA  – he may also see Johnson carrying out a BREXIT which he has for so long desired. Despite Johnson’s successful “Get BREXIT Done” soundbite policy, this could be the most difficult of Corbyn’s under-the-radar successes. International capital does not want BREXIT and has not tolerated any EU population voting for exit from the EU. Clearly, multinationals find it much easier to control one central EU than scores of states. Brussels and Strasbourg are easier to manipulate, supranational legislation easier to lobby for and against. Though English elites motivated by nationalist ideology and idealistic visions of a tax haven off the shores of Europe have power – do they really have the power of more bourgeois facets of the global financial services industry? The same threats from those interests will be visible as Johnson attempts to “Get BREXIT done”.

This will include the de facto breakup of the UK vis a vis Ulster and an EU border down the Irish Sea but also the end of Scotland being part of the UK. There will be many establishment interests that cannot abide the break up of the UK and it is still unclear why the electorally victorious Scottish National Party was so quick to announce intentions for a de facto illegal Scottish referendum on independence. It’s clear from EU implicit support for the jailing of democratically elected politicians in Catalonia seeking independence from Spain that the EU will support London over Edinburgh in any illegal referendum. Scots have their own circle to square. The SNP supports Remain because of the EU’s economic importance for an independent Scotland. But the EU opposes an independent Scotland.

It was the great scholar Perry Anderson who outlined significant reasons why no new “Jerusalem” was created in Britain from the ashes of the second world war. The NHS is in effect just a remnant skeleton of what UK elites and masses envisaged would be the re-building of a nation shaken by Stalin’s ultimate victory against Nazism. Arguably for Anderson – when it came to top down explanations – it was the power of those who had witnessed absolutist politics, left or right, arriving in Britain as refugees of the Holocaust. Neoliberal thinkers arrived, warning the establishment of the dangers of all-encompassing political philosophies. There was nothing between socialism, communism and nazism. Go too far to the left and you are on the right, they said. An entire country which could recognize sewn internationalist trade union banners was primed for a new Jerusalem but by the second term of the Attlee government in the 1950s, the bourgeois battle against the left in his own government had led to the end of it.

Ironically, a new Jerusalem was being built elsewhere in the Middle East – a progressive working class project in Palestine. It was that absolutist project rooted in socialism but also in religious ethnicity that would end up in the Nakba – and internationalist UN condemnation of Israel. And which UK politician has been one of the most ardent at seeking to uphold UN resolutions and international law? Jeremy Corbyn, of course. No leader of any UK major political party has sought to uphold Palestinian civil rights like Corbyn. And as anyone who has seen the censored Al Jazeera documentary “The Lobby” knows, the Israeli state was quite aware of it. Israel, which without Anglo-American financial assistance could not exist, did its best to neutralize Jeremy Corbyn. Its chosen method was deploying propaganda about endemic anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. Given Corbyn’s personal story includes lifelong commitment to fighting bigotry and his own family has a history of street protest against fascist anti-Semitism, the criticism hurt him hard, personally. His response was lamentable, throwing his closest comrades under the bus. Already in the USA, those seeking a President Bernie Sanders in 2020 are warning supporters to fight fire with fire if Israel’s proxies dare to label a Jewish son whose family members were killed in the Holocaust – an “antisemite”.

Elsewhere, elite media continues to analyze the 2019 UK General Election as if the statistical facts don’t matter. While Jeremy Corbyn has built the largest socialist movement in Western Europe, media advocates something called “centrism” as if political parties are there to implement policies supported by floating voters instead of the other way around. Corbyn planted deep roots in the British political landscape, creating tensions and insecurities amongst the privileged that will not go away any time soon. One of Johnson’s most pressing concerns on behalf of the privileged will be to prevent a threat like Corbyn ever happening again. That will be the priority. They need not be so concerned by accusations of brutality – a series of scandals leading to UN claims of political and ideological barbarity by Johnson’s class against the country’s most vulnerable was easily brushed aside.

But as extra-parliamentary action against neoliberalism multiplies and with capitalism’s harm to the earth becoming clearer, the main takeaway from the election results of Friday 13th 2019 is arguably that of a hidden majority. It’s a majority that those in power – in the multinationals and media – do not want voters to know about. Yet it is central to democracy in Britain, itself.  Corbyn may have taken eleven million votes and Johnson fourteen – but sixteen million eligible voters did not vote at all.